WEST COVINA — City officials, confronted by angry homeowners claiming that they are being taxed but are receiving no services, recommended Monday that a special landscape assessment be discontinued.
Residents would have to assume responsibility for greenery upkeep under the plan, which must be approved by the City Council.
Last month, a group of South Hills homeowners led by Frank Barbagallo protested the landscape taxes, arguing that in the nine years the city has collected about $628,000 from their neighborhood, developers have not been forced to install the required greenery.
Barbagallo has charged that the city has instead used the money for purposes not connected to the district and that interest earnings have been added to the city's general fund. City officials say the expenditures have been proper.
Under the state law establishing such landscape maintenance districts, the city acts as a watchdog to ensure that developers install landscaping, which the city subsequently maintains.
As part of a report on the district's finances and operations requested by the City Council, City Engineer Harry W. Thomas recommended Monday that the city disband the district and turn the responsibility over to a homeowners organization.
While such a plan would be less than perfect, Thomas said, a resident-operated district could operate more economically and remove the city from its administrative role.
The council took no action on the report but set an Aug. 7 hearing date, where Thomas' recommendation and the homeowners' concerns will be considered.
Barbagallo criticized the recommendation.
"The city staff has recommended that you abandon the district," he told the council. "We have been paying taxes for nine years . . . for you to abandon us now would be in poor faith."
Barbagallo's neighborhood consists of 240 acres of upscale, hillside homes near the intersection of Cameron and Grand avenues. The area is supposed to have 91 acres of "common open space" that would have six acres of landscaping. The rest of the land is to remain in an almost natural state, with only fire prevention and minimal maintenance.
Thomas has acknowledged that progress on the portion that is to be landscaped has been slowed by "less than satisfactory" efforts from a succession of home developers, poor plant choices that did not take root and bad weather conditions. He estimated that the work could be completed in the next 14 months.
After reviewing city records, Barbagallo claims that the city has not lived up to its responsibility in the natural area, providing no brush removal or fire protection measures. Instead, he alleges, the city has used the money to support programs outside the district and pay the salaries of city employees having minimal connection to the district.
But the city's auditor, McGladrey & Pullen, conducted a review of the maintenance district's financial operations, concluding that "it appears that the type of expenditures that the district has incurred is in compliance with the (state) act."
As of May, the city had collected $628,493 from the district, at least 60% of which was paid by developers, according to Thomas' report, which included the audit.
Of the $375,430 spent by the district, $184,675 was used for employee salaries and benefits, $35,223 went to consultants, $14,197 went to service contracts, $18,607 was spent on materials and services, $88,916 for administrative costs and $33,812 for capital improvements. A reserve fund intended for emergencies, such as landslides, contains $253,063, according to the audit.
Despite the audit's conclusions, resident Marc S. Lafer questioned the city's efforts.
"What has been done for that money," he asked. "What does the city of West Covina have to show for that $650,000."
On Monday, Thomas proposed four options but recommended disbanding the assessment district. One option was to continue the current practice but remit interest income to residents who live in the district by lowering the $650 annual assessments by as much $100.
Two other proposals would either reduce or eliminate the contingency fund but would put the city's general fund at risk in case of a large landslide, he said. Also, homeowners could be hit with large assessments the year after a slide to reimburse the city, he said.
Establishing a homeowners group would reduce the annual maintenance costs by as much as 30% because of decreased administrative costs, according to Thomas. Homeowners would have total control over the level of service provided.
But he also noted several disadvantages. Such organizations lack the expertise of city engineers and the flexibility to respond to emergencies, such as landslides, he said.
Thomas said his suggestion was an attempt to give the residents what they want and balance that with the city's desire to see the area maintained.
Lafer said the recommendation to disband the district was an attempt by the city staff to punish residents. "To me, that just rings of retaliation," he said.
"These people have been collecting taxes since 1980-81, and all the time they've taxed they have not done anything for it," he said. "We don't think we're radicals; we just want to get what we're paying for."